Separating science and religion

When I was an undergraduate student in Jerusalem, I held a part-time job and worked full time in the summer one year as a bellboy and doorman at the Jerusalem Sheraton-Plaza Hotel. The multi-faceted experiences that I had could probably provide fodder for a couple of novels, but I want to focus on one specific issue.

More than anywhere else, this job exposed me to the ridiculous nature of extreme religion. For those of you who may not be familiar, orthodox Jewish religion forbids work on the Sabbath. For a bellboy at the hotel (working of course on Sabbath), this presented some very interesting scenarios. First, how is work defined? By many orthodox Jews, one cannot ride an elevator on the Sabbath. Why? It is the act of pushing the button for the floor that is the problem, because everything else is automated. So the elevators on Saturdays were set to be “Sabbath elevators.” This means that they would automatically stop on every floor. It could take a full 20 minutes to get up to the 21st floor.

But many orthodox would not even step into a “Sabbath elevator.” No–they would take the stairs (Less work? Go figure). But sometimes it was necessary to bring a small child or baby up to the 17th floor. Hence–the job of the bellboy. Of course, there would be no tip at the end of the climb–after all, no money on the Sabbath. In addition, the good people would always ask and check whether I myself was Jewish–after all, it’s a sin to cause another Jew to work on the Sabbath. But that “check” was inevitably done after I had climbed and sweated 19 floors with a loaded pram.

There are many more “rules and regulations,” but I think I made my point as far as giving many of you a taste of them so that you will feel my pain when I introduce the article below describing how money that should have been designated for support of scientific research is being slated for nonsense research. It hurts me, it really does. When I graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I believe it was still ranked in the top 20 in the world for the sciences. That number is spiraling upward, unfortunately, and mainly due to the hyenas feasting on the dying universities as described below.

Israel funds courses on ties between Jewish law and science

Program, funded by the Science and Technology Ministry, is drawing fire from academic quarters for not being science based.

By Or Kashti

The Science and Technology Ministry is continuing to fund enrichment courses for the general public on the relationship between science and Jewish law (halakha ), according to a tender published last week inviting groups to apply for grants. The tender stipulates that bodies applying for the funding must be those dealing with “halakhic-scientific research” and in finding “technological-halakhic solutions.”

The ministry is to grant NIS 600,000 in funding to this year’s programs, less than last year’s NIS 1 million handed out.

The program is drawing fire from academic quarters for being less scientific and more Jewish law based.

“This is not activity to promote science, but rather funding of a halakhic discussion of science,” said Prof. Sivan Toledo of Tel Aviv University’s School of Computer Science.

Other academic officials said that at a time when the humanities and the natural sciences are having difficulty surviving for lack of funds and other reasons, the decision to fund such programs was not the right one.

A source in the Science and Technology Ministry said its Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ) is advancing a policy of “bringing the community closer to science,” and to that end “he obtained funding of approximately NIS 7 million, out of which NIS 1.2 million have been allocated to the subject of science and halakha.”

According to the tender, “there is also importance to the area in which science and technology are incorporated in applied halakha over the generations” and that the funding was for programs that would combine “the study and application of science/technology in relation to laws by which Jews are commanded to act.”

The call excludes yeshivas and kollels for married men unless their aims include research in the field or “solutions in the area of science, technology and halakha.”

The Science and Technology Ministry said on Thursday that the invitation to apply for the funding was formulated together with the Justice Ministry.

The ministry also said groups studying the shmita agricultural sabbatical year would also be excluded from applying to avoid double dipping, because “such research is funded by the Agriculture Ministry.”

Last year, six institutions received grants for more extensive programs, totaling NIS 1 million. Among them the the Torah-science college in the settlement of Ma’aleh Levona, the Institute for the Study of the New Month in the Kerem B’Yavneh Yeshiva and the Dr. Falk Schlesinger Institute for Medical-Halakhic Research of Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Issues raised in the classes included the use of electricity on Shabbat, the place of astronomy in halakha and continuing education for rabbis on the issue of clinical death and transplants.

The ministry funds other programs promoting science, some more extensively than the science and halacha programs, such as science programs in local councils. Those get NIS 3 million, while other programs, like ones involving outer space, get NIS 300,000.

The Science and Technology Ministry said the tender was “augmenting, not detracting from” the ministry’s ongoing activities promoting science and was one of many such tenders promoting science.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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8 Responses to Separating science and religion

  1. Just leaving a quick comment to say I’m enjoying your blog…

  2. cromercrox says:

    I’m sorry I missed this Steve – was on vacation.But really, oy. Just oy. The Black Hats are taking over.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Yes the black hats are a ticking time bomb. They are by far the biggest threat to Israel’s survival. Who would have thought in 1948 that 60+ years later this would happen?

      • cromercrox says:

        What? The Black Hats being more of a threat than Israel’s hostile neighbours? It seems crazy, I know, but I think you’re right. Perhaps the Black Hats are undermining Israel deliberately – after all, they don’t think Israel should exist, the Messiah having not turned up and all. There’s a mess in ‘ere, but no messiah.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Obviously, I am over-simplifying. But if one takes into consideration that the country’s military is very strong and well prepared for defending itself against immediate existential threats (as opposed to being unable to handle overall attrition), then the real fight is over what kind of country Israel wants to be when it grows up. The blackhats, although different to the core from the messianic, patriotic orthodox settlers, both band against the seculars in promoting: a) religious intolerance (I’d say coercion), b) “greater Israel”. Both of these notions are contrary to the original Zionist founders’ view of the future of Israel, and both pose serious threats to Israel’s existence–as a country we know and love.

  3. I had a friend at school (latterly a reasonably well known BBC journalist and producer) who used to entertain us with stories of the oddities of Jewish religious and dietary rules, notably including ‘keeping the Sabbath’. I remember him once telling us he had been reading a letters page in the family copy of the Jewish Chronicle. This column, he insisted, was called “Ask the Rabbi’, and dealt with questions of that ilk. My friend explained to us how the ‘no work’ strictures meant that no food could be prepared on the Sabbath, so the food had to be readied before sundown on a Friday and put in the fridge ready to eat the following day. But, he told us, some of the Jewish Chronicle’s correspondents were worried about this. The problem was that opening the fridge door to get the food out on Saturday turned on the fridge light, which was the doing of work. What could they do about this, they wanted to ask the Rabbi.

    The answer, according to my friend, was:

    “Take the bulb out of the fridge light every Friday when you put the food in’

    Whether the story was apocryphal or not, it is easy to laugh at such things. And back then in 1970-something, when Israel was still a very secular state, it would never have occurred to me, or my friend, or I dare say his mildly-religiously-observant parents, where the religious-isation of Israel would have got to 30+ years later.

    Of course, I wouldn’t have predicted the way that religion has again become dominant in American life either. When we were living on Cape Cod and in Pittsburgh in the late 60s my parents thought religion in the US was another of those things that was gradually passing away. How wrong we all were.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Austin, it gets much worse than merely taking the bulb out of the refrigerator! One of the most important commodities on the Sabbath (or any other day for that matter) is toilet paper. Did you know that toilet paper needs to be “pre-ripped” before the Sabbath to avoid the work involved in tearing off pieces? And then as bell-boy, there was the case of two brothers, one who lived in Brooklyn and was visiting Jerusalem, and his brother who actually lived in Jerusalem. Many Jewish holidays (which are regarded like the Sabbath) are celebrated an extra day in the dispora (ie., Jewish New year is 2 days in NY, and a single day in Israel). So there was a real argument, because the American brother would not get into the elevator, whereas his Israeli brother would.
    It’s all homeopathy-like…

    So while they can do what they want, they shoudn’t be doing it with taxpayers money supposedly designated for science.

    But yes, who would have thought religion would come back with a vengeance? I have to admit, though, that at least in the US (despite my differing views on evolution, abortion and other issues) the situation is relatively benign. In many cases I can actually see (when we speak of moderate and not fanatical religion) that the religion may be helping uphold positive values (I don’t mean religious values) such as politeness, honesty, and a genuine desire to be a generous and good citizen.

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